Sunday, 24 August 2014

INTERFERENCE OF THE STATE

 We believe that Mr. Justin McCarthy, in his " History of our own Times," was the first to draw attention to the great re-action against the doctrine of the political economists, of the non-interference of the State. He points out that it is one of the most remarkable changes in opinion of the last thirty years, and rightly dwells upon it as a phenomenon of which it is necessary to take very careful account. At the meeting of the Social Science Congress, at Birmingham, on September 17, the President, Mr. J. Shaw Lefevre, said that it was usual in such address as he was called upon to deliver, to take a review of the legislation of the past year, as it affected the moral and social condition of the people, but this year such a " retrospect discovers nothing but a blank, owing to circumstances I need not advert to." He, therefore, proceeded to review the legislation of the past thirty years or so, and showed that the doctrine insisted on by Adam Smith, and his many followers, of the duty of the State to let matters generally alone, had completely broken down. Mr. Herbert Spencer is left alone to preach the doctrine of laissez-faire, and to declare that the action of the State during the last few years is of a character to lead to socialism and "the coming slavery." Mr. Shaw-Lefevre seemed to think that Mr. Herbert Spencer is proved to be altogether wrong, because State interference has been shown to be highly beneficial, as witness the improvement in the work in the mines, and the factories, and the general conditions of the employment of women and children. Canon Kingsley said long ago, in those days when the Christian Socialists took Mr. Gerald Massey by the hand and made him the secretary of a Co-operative Association ; in those days when men like Professor Maurice proposed to extend political economy, by adding co-operation as a corollary of competition ; that he who studied Nature to let her starve him or stink him to death was a goose, whether he called himself a philosopher or political economist. But, there was one thing that the Christian Socialists, clever as they were, did not see, but which the working classes saw very distinctly, or at least thought they saw and still think they see despite the philosophers of the old school and Mr. Herbert Spencer. That is, that the State alone possesses the power to adequately protect the working classes. Mr. J. Bright and others of his school believe that competition will do all that is required, but the working-men see that they can got protection only from a power which is able to coerce employers. The re-action against laissez faire is, consequently, in proportion to the extension of democracy. Mr. SHAW-LEFEVRE sees that also, and admits the connection between the extension of the franchise for the House of Commons and the new legislation, but he declares that the legislation has been accepted and welcomed by all classes, and by men of all political opinions. In fact, political economy within the last 30 years has been greatly extended and modified, the school of absolute Freetraders has been left very far behind, and it is generally agreed that the State is bound to interfere whenever the operation of stern competition tends to degrade and demoralise the working-classes. Thus, the State has taken upon itself the inspection of workshops and factories of all kinds, it provides telegraphic and telephonic communication, the Post Office has a staff of 46,000 persons, municipal councils have undertaken the supply of water and of gas, and the restriction of hours of work has actually been applied to the case of children working at home with their parents. All this the working-classes heartily approve. Nowhere do they desire to be independent of State control ; their real weakness is, that they persistently believe that the State can do a great deal more than it is able to accomplish. The State has even gone further, it has lent money to local authorities to enable them to carry out the Education Act, to build artisans' dwellings, and in Ireland to tenants to purchase their holdings, and to persons who desire to carry out a complete and effective system of emigration.

One of the favourite doctrines of the old political economists may be said to have fairly disappeared, and the question now is, how far is this change to go? Mr. Shaw-Lefevre sees that there can be no stoppage at the present point. He says:—" The experience of Ireland may well cause us to consider whether the present state of land ownership in England and Scotland is on a safe foundation, whether it would stand the test of a serious crisis, and whether it is the result of natural causes working freely, or of the intervention of the State for centuries favouring and facilitating by law, and in many other ways, the accumulation of land in a few hands." On this point there will be no doubt. All will be agreed that the laws and customs which have tended to cause land in Great Britain to fall into a few hands should be abolished as rapidly as possible, but does Mr. Shaw-Lefevre expect that the new democracy will stop there? He declares that the law should facilitate the dispersion of property and the multiplication of owners, which is all very well, and must be the tendency of future legislation, but is this enough? "There is one mute shadow watching all." That is the shadow of the coming democracy, for which Mr. Gladstone is now so loudly shouting " clear the way," which will call upon the State to do as much more in the future as it has done within the last thirty or forty years, and which will not rest content with the theory of the struggle for existence. All things point to this as the inevitable outcome of the tendency of modern thought and action, and the choice will lie between Socialism and Caesarism. To those who believe that all change must mean an advance, as many simple persons do believe, the signs are as those of the dawning of a glorious day ; but to those who see the proclivity of social difficulties to be settled by the sword, the signs betoken many troubles to come.

The President of the Social Science Congress has something to tell us about the future. He tells us, indeed, that " new questions, some of them touching the very foundations of society and of property, are being raised and discussed by the people, and should be fully handled by such a Society as this."  This is very right and proper, but we may take the liberty of doubting whether any such society can possibly be able to have the least appreciable effect on their ultimate solution. What is more, we doubt whether the society has the least perception of the character of the forces which are gradually being accummulated, volcano like, beneath the surface of the sweltering civilization of the Old World, where population presses so closely on the means of living at to make the coming problem one of the most difficult and portentous that the world has ever had to solve. The conclusions of the political economists are true, looked at in one way ; they do not appear to be true, looked at in another ; but the converse of them will be found to undergo, as, indeed, most great truths do, a like metamorphosis. The questions have to be settled, what is the State, and what is Government? It is already suggested that many of the functions now exercised by the central Government shall be handed over to local bodies, that is, the Commune is to be answerable for the well being of its part of the general community. This much we may say, amidst the conflicting opinions and surmises, that when Lord Brougham delivered the inaugural address of the Social Science Congress 27 years ago, he could not have foreseen such an address as that delivered by its present President barely two months since.

 The Mercury 4 November 1884,

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